The Sandbaggers ran for three series, and twenty episodes, between 1978 and 1980. Hailed by the New York Times as “the best spy series in television history” it’s a show that eschews the glamour of James Bond and instead is located at the more realist end of the genre, alongside the likes of Callan and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The series was created, and largely written by, Ian Mackintosh. Mackintosh, a former naval officer, penned all the episodes from the first two series as well as four from series three. However, during production of the third series, the plane he was piloting went missing near Alaska and neither Mackintosh, or his girlfriend, were ever found. The authenticity of The Sandbaggers has led many people to suppose that Mackintosh had previously worked for the intelligence services and some also believe that his disappearance was not a simple accident.
His loss meant that several other authors were drafted in to provide episodes for the third series, but without Mackintosh’s guiding hand it was clearly felt that the series had run its course.
Rewinding back to the first episode of series one, First Principles acts as a strong introduction to many of the main characters. Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden) is always at the centre of the series. Burnside is the Director of Operations (D-Ops) for the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS). In order to carry out the numerous dirty jobs requested by his masters, he has three highly trained operatives, codenamed Sandbaggers.
Burnside is humourless, totally driven, somewhat arrogant and seems to exist only for his work. His marriage, to Belinda, foundered some time ago – although he still keeps in contact with his former father-in-law, Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan), who is the Permanent Undersecretary of State. They enjoy a sometimes cordial relationship which is rather frowned upon by Burnside’s immediate superior, Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis).
Peele is the deputy director of SIS and is clearly presented as a man who lacks field experience, which means he’ll often clash with Burnside over operational matters. Burnside previously served as a Sandbagger, so at least he understands the implications of the jobs he asks his men to carry out.
Head of the SIS is Sir James Greenley, referred to as “C” (Richard Vernon). “C” is a diplomat, and not from an intelligence background, so is initially viewed with suspicion by Burnside – although they do later form a good working relationship.
Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman) is head of the London Station of the CIA. Ross and Burnside are friends, although they’ll sometimes find themselves on opposite sides as their masters manipulate events for their own benefit.
As for the Sandbaggers, it’s a high risk job, so some last longer than others. The one who remains during all three series is Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen). Caine can be blunt and outspoken and isn’t content to follow Burnside’s orders blindly (as seen in this episode). Had the show ran to a fourth series, there were interesting hints as to how his character would have been developed, but sadly this came to nothing.
As the episode opens, we see Burnside walking through the streets of London. He stops from time to time, looks in shop windows, and then carries on walking. When he gets to the office he wonders exactly who was tailing him – whoever it was, they didn’t do a very good job. Caine says that he was tailed too, which raises a faint alarm bell with Burnside. He muses as to whether MI5 are using his men to train their recruits.
It turns out that the shadowers are from the fledgling Norwegian secret service. Burnside demands an explanation from their chief, Torvik (Olaf Pooley). Torvik apologies, but tells him that “you belong to the oldest and most respected secret service in the world. I have charge of a rather newer and less professional one.”
Torvik does have another motive though. The Norwegians have lost a spy-plane, which went down between the border between Norway and Russia. The plane and its occupants are now within the Russian border and Torvik wants the Sandbaggers to go in and rescue them. Burnside refuses, since it’s an incredibly dangerous mission that’s of no benefit to the SIS.
But Whitehall are keen. If the Sandbaggers mount the rescue, then the Norwegians will buy the British Nemesis missile. If the British refuse to help, the Norwegians will approach the Americans and buy their missile, the Warbonnet, instead.
Burnside’s far from happy, but he has no room for manuovure – so he reluctantly agrees. He doesn’t move quickly enough for Torvik though – and just as the Sandbaggers are due to parachute into Russia, Burnside is appalled to receive a message from Torvik requesting he abort the mission.
It’s far too late though, as they’re already on the ground. Ross fills him in on the details. Since Torvik believed that Burnside was dragging his feet, he approached the Americans – who set up their own operation to rescue the crew. This they managed to do, but they ran directly into a Russian patrol and were all captured – but at least it allows the Sandbaggers to creep away undetected to the border.
For Burnside, it’s a complete mess although Wellingham is able to look on the bright side – as it was the Americans who were caught and not the British, maybe the Norweigans would still be interested in the Nemesis missile. As Wellingham says, that after all, was what the mission was all about.
Burnside has one piece of unfinished business to attend to, as he tells Torvik exactly what is required to mount a Special Operation and his speech stands as a mission statement for the series.
Special Operations doesn’t mean going in with all guns blazing. It means special planning, special care. Fully briefed agents in possession of all possible alternatives. If you want James Bond, go to your library. But if you want a successful operation, sit at your desk and think. And then think again. Our battles aren’t fought at the end of a parachute. They’re won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster.
Torvik suggests they have a drink, but Burnside tells him that “if I had a glass in my hand at the moment I’d shove it down your throat.” Burnside is many things, but a diplomat he is not.
First Principles is a decent opening episode. It’s true that the Russian/Norweigan border looks suspiciously like the English countryside, but you’ll have to get used to various foreign countries bearing a remarkable similarly to locations much closer to home (although they do manage foreign filming, in Malta, for a couple of episodes).